THURSDAY, JUNE 10, 2004
LOUS CANON: What was Reagan actually like? For those of you who find yourselves wondering, let us stand with Eric Alterman. On Monday, Alterman recommended Lou Cannons fair-minded  biography, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, a book that can be admired by honest fans of Reagan as well as honest opponents. (And yes, both groups do exist.) In the past few days, weve been rereading parts of Cannons book, and we must say this: Every time we revisit this text, were more impressed by its authors rare abilities. Few writers can describe a pols failures so frankly, then turn around and dispassionately describe episodes where he performed more ably. Well also recommend Cannons 2003 book, Governor Reagan, which takes us up to Reagans inauguration as president. Did Cannon ever vote for Reagan? Read these endlessly instructive texts. See if you can tell.
Cannon was a longtime Reagan-watcher, having reported on the Gipper for the Los Angeles Times, then the Washington Post. One great strength of his 1991 book is the unvarnished look it takes at Reagans peculiar mental style. Of course, such topics have been swept away as hagiographers have worked their magic on cable this week. But whatever one thinks of Reagans policies, he was surely one of the most unusual men ever to occupy the White House. Cannon goes deep inside his subjects ability to believe things that were plainly untrue. For those who want to explore this side of the Reagan legacy, we recommend Cannons detailed passage on Reagans claim to have filmed Nazi death camps at the Holocausts end, and his lengthy treatment of Reagans long-time belief in Armageddon. Did you recall that Reagan was actually asked about the latter topic in one of the Mondale debates?
But if you want to review just one topic, read Cannons lengthy account of the Iran-contra affair. Its hard to find words for the endless lunacy of this episodeand Cannons description of Reagans role flies in the face of the cheerful portrait painted by grinning entertainers Russert and Mitchell on Sundays Meet the Press (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/7/04). In Cannons description, Reagan was functioning very poorly by late 1986, when this matter came to light. No, Cannon doesnt shrink from saying that Reagan lied at various times as this matter unfolded. But beyond that, he seems to feel that Reagan was only marginally functional as his aides fought off impeachment. Heres his description of what occurred when Reagan testified for the second time to his own Tower Commission (on 2/11/87). Try to reconcile this account with the stories youve heard this past week. (Warning: Dont confuse Reagans name with that of his chief of staff, Donald Regan):
CANNON (page 631): [I]t was obvious to [Donald] Regan and [White House counsel Peter] Wallison that the president was still shaky in his recollections. Wallison drew up what Abshire called an aide-memoire to help the president recall what he had told them. At the top Wallison wrote, On the issue of the TOW [missile] shipment in August, in discussing this matter with me and David Abshire, you said you were surprised to learn that the Israelis had shipped the arms. If that is your recollection, and the question comes up at the Tower Board meeting, you might want to say that you were surprised.God, it was just terrible, Wallison told Cannon. But, as Cannons book makes painfully clear, this embarrassing event was nothing new. The Tower Board had been exposed to the real Reagan, Cannon writes, as he was seen every day at close range by the handful of aides with personal access to him. Please note: This is not an attempt by Cannon to say that President Reagan was some sort of fraud. But his descriptions of the presidents impaired functioning fly in the face of the press corps recent entertainments. And they suggest that the matter of Reagans presidency is less simple than grinning entertainers are training the public to think.
Why have we seen so much silly clowning on cable? In part, because that is the way your press corps functions in every area, with all public figures. If The Group doesnt like a public figure, they invent vicious stories and stage Group Recitals, trying to destroy their targets reputation and abusing the publics right to know. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/5/04, for just one in an endless list of such stunning, inexcusable episodes. But if a public figure is looked on with approval? Then, pundits recites silly, bowdlerized tales, like the one Russert and Mitchell performed on Sundays Meet the Press.
In this mornings Washington Post, sane-and-balanced Jim Hoagland hints at the shape of this remarkable problem:
HOAGLAND: The craving by Americans for uncluttered heroismfor what is seen in retrospect as the order and clarity of the Cold Waralso powers this yearning for a near-mythical transformation of Reagans death into a moment to sweep aside the dread and anguish of the wars in Iraq and against al Qaeda.History is what we say it is? Truer words were never spoken, as HOWLER readers surely know. In fairness, what did that unnamed producer mean? In fairness, of course, we cant really say. But the press corps ran to invent fake history when Gore gave his speech in September 02. And on last Sundays Meet the Press, Russert and Mitchell also reshaped the past. They knew their cheerful assignments this week. Given the volume of practice theyve had, reinventions were easy to accomplish.
At times, did Reagan work from the type of script Rhett Dawson demanded? Yes, but your press corps works from such scripts every day. No wonder they see a congenial figure in the man who good-naturedly claimed, to two different world figures, that he had filmed the Nazi death camps. Yes, Reagan often made strange claims. But none of his claims were half as strange as the claims your press corps makes routinely. Your brain will now recommend denial, telling you this cant be so. We suggest you read Cannons books, then watch an hour of cable.
SEND IN THE CLOWN: For sheer clowning, you had to catch Bill OReilly complaining last night about the politicization of Reagans death. Now for the top story tonight, he began, a behind-the-scenes look at the Reagan memorial and how politics as usual are happening even as Mr. Reagan is being eulogized. Monica Crowley and Michelle Malkin took turns complaining about the far lefts carping. Soon, Bill was griping again. Enjoy a mordant chuckle:
OREILLY: I dont want politics to intrude in any way. And that's why I was so angry yesterday. You know, thisthese pictures are what this is all about, dignity and grace, and honoring a man that was a patriot, whether you agree with him or not.Bill didnt want politics to intrude in any way. And oh yeah: Did you hear that Clinton apparently is miffed? In fact, how fake and phony was the No-Spin Nabob? Note what Mr. O quickly said after Malkin recited her script:
MALKIN: Well, certainly the liberal media is discombobulated by all this. You know, Doug Gamble, who is a humor writer for the Reagan, always said that it was so easy to write jokes for him because he had an incredible innate sense of timing. And even in choosing his death, he has done so as well. Of course, the Democrats are mad about this. It sucked the oxygen out of all their manufactured scandals.and out of the launch of Bill Clinton's book. And as you mentioned before the break, of course, Clinton is livid that he is not in the spotlight at this point.Oops. OReilly raised the topic; let Malkin trash Clinton; then said he didnt know it the story was true! But he wanted to be absolutely fair, of course. And of course, he didnt want politics to intrude in any way. People are running with it, Mr. O said. Quite clearly, Mr. O knew.
How did our country reach the point where such clowning clowns are defining our discourse? Where timorous good guys hide behind desks, afraid to tell Bill to grow up?
NOTE: Under the circumstances, Crowley deserves a good deal of credit for noting that Senator Ted Stevens speech was also a bit too political. Her exchange with Mr. OR:
CROWLEY: And Senator Stevens tonight, I think he made a very political speech, which was not appropriate to the moment. If you're going to eulogize somebody, and this is a former president, and youre engaged in a state funeral, you do not weigh down your remarks with policy.We also thought Stevens showed imperfect judgment. But at least he didnt play the fool, mouthing Standard Clinton Rumors, while complaining about the way the fanatical left (Mr. Os term) was just playing politics, as usual.